This is Lulubelle, she is a really big girl and she looks angry, but she's the sweetest and most gentle of all our chooks. Lulubelle is a barred Plymouth Rock.
Today I was going to write about keeping chickens in the backyard but I've just read a post I did in May last year on this same topic and there is not a lot I want to change. So instead of writing the same information in a different way, I've copied that old post and I'll add a few bits and pieces.
Chickens are a chaotic jumble of gentleness, cannibalism, stupidity and raw cunning so it was not surprising that the first pet I bought for my children were chooks. My kids grew up looking after chickens. They fed and watered them, carried them around, collected their eggs, played with them and helped buried them when they died. My sons are two of the most gentle people you’d ever meet. The chooks and I made them like that.
Here, from left, are Bernadette (Barnevelder), Heather (Faverolles) and Martha (buff Orpington). They are puffed up because they're cold.
The first thing you need to consider if you want to keep chooks is where you’d keep them. You’ll need a coop or chook dome for them to sleep in, some nesting boxes, a roost – this is where they’ll perch while they sleep and some room for them to roam during the day. It’s much easier to have a cement floor in the coop because you need to be able to collect the manure to use on your garden and to hose out the coop each week. Smelly chickens will have your neighbours complaining and after a few days of rain you’ll be pulling your hair out if you decide against putting down a cement floor. The hen house will need to be surrounded by a tallish fence with a gate that can be closed every night and whenever you need the hens out of the way, like when you mow the lawn. Many areas of Australia are infested with foxes and wild dogs or dingoes. If you buy some chickens you must care for them well and make sure they’ll be safe, even when you’re not a home.
Chook house designs here
You’ll need shredded paper or straw for the nests, a feeder and a water container – we use a bucket. You could scatter the hen’s food each day and have them forage for it. Unlike other animals, hens don’t over eat so it’s much easier (for you) to have a feeder that you can fill up that will feed them for a week or so. A large plastic chicken feeder will cost about $35, a metal one will cost about $50, but they are a good investment.
The number of eggs a chook will lay is dependent upon what type they are and your climate. Chooks lay less in the cold weather and if you have pure breeds, they will take time off laying during the year to moult and replenish their calcium levels. Hybrid chooks don't do that, they're bred to be egg machines and will continue laying most of the year. Where I live, each chicken will lay about 300 eggs per year, or one every 25 hours. They lay best during warmer weather but will stop laying when they lose their feathers or if they are stressed. Work out how many hens you’ll need to supply your family with eggs. At their peak, each hen will lay about four to five eggs a week so if your family eat an egg each a day you’ll need one and a bit hens per family member. So, for example, if you have four people in your family, you’ll need five or six hens and from them you’ll get around between 25 to 30 eggs per week.
Before you buy your first chickens, ring your local council and find out what the regulations are for raising chickens in your backyard. For instance, my local council has banned roosters and the hen house must be a certain distance from neighbourhood fences, there are also restrictions on the number of chooks we keep (20), but apart from that anything goes. Find out what your local authority requirements are and be guided by them. If your local authority won't allow you to keep chickens. I encourage you to write a letter to them, and your local member of parliament, to protest that decision. Chooks were commonly kept in backyards by out grandparents and their grandparents and it is a fairly recent decision to keep backyards chicken-free. I believe it is everyone's right to keep chooks for eggs or for meat, and that right should not have been taken away from you simply because your neighbour doesn't want to see livestock in the neighbourhood. Surely we don't want to live in a place that has been landscaped and cemented with no natural elements in it. Chickens are an important part of a sustainable backyard and if that right has been taken away from you, you should fight to get it back.
Another decision you need to make before you buy is to decide if you want to keep hens for eggs or if you also want to raise your chickens for meat. Some hens are bred to maximize their egg laying potential, others are bred to have big breasts and legs so that they are best for meat chickens. Or you can do what ordinary folk have done for hundreds of years and kill the male birds for meat and keep the girls for eggs. Check the Henderson's chart
for meat and egg layers.
This is Mary, one of our Australorps. Look at her pretty black-green feathers. The Australorp is an Australian breed.
There are many different types of chickens but you should buy the type you find visually pleasing and those that will suit your purpose for size, eggs or meat. For example, I keep Rhode Island Reds, Australorps, Plymouth Rocks, Orpingtons, light Sussex and others, in the past we’ve had Pekin bantams. Light Sussex is a dual purpose bird as they are good layers, good broody hens and mothers and have a good body size for meat. If you have small children, maybe you’d like to keep silkies. They are gentle and don’t mind being handled but they don’t produce a lot of eggs, so there is a downside to them. They also have black meat which might put some people off. If you’re in a city, and don’t have much space, you might consider bantams. Three would give you enough eggs for a couple or small family. I have written about the important of pure breed chooks here
. I will never buy chooks bred for the caged poultry industry again; from now on, all my chooks will be pure breeds.
If you're unsure of the various types of pure breed chickens, or what conditions they're suited to, read this wonderful chart.
Here are light Sussex, Stella Gladys, and silver Sussex, Poppy. Stella Gladys is really tall her her age and has legs that look like emu legs!
You can buy day old chicks, young chickens or pullets. My recommendation for first timer chicken keepers is to buy pullets. These are chickens that are about 16-20 weeks old and will be ready to lay eggs in the next couple of weeks. Buying pullets gives you a couple of weeks to get used to looking after them and then you will have the eggs to reward you. Try to buy from a local hatchery or a local breeder. This will give valued support to your local community, it will be easier for you to travel there and back with chickens in the car and there will be less stress on the birds. They will also be acclimatised to your local area.
Make sure your hen house is ready before they arrive, complete with food and fresh water. Chickens need four vital things to keep them healthy and laying:
Grains – mixed wholegrain, not just sunflower seeds, corn or wheat. They will eat all those grains and seeds but it’s much better for them, and for you as you’ll be eating their eggs, that they have a healthy mix of grains.
Fresh green food like spinach, silverbeet, cabbage leaves, lettuce, grass and weeds that you’ve pulled from the garden. They will also eat tomatoes, apples, pears and a number of other fruits.
Protein – chickens need a high protein diet to enable them to produce eggs. If your girls are free ranging, their diet will be supplemented with bugs, grasshoppers and caterpillars. This is good for the chickens and the garden. If your chickens are in a pen all day they will need high protein food in the form of laying pellets or laying mash. You can also give them meat, chicken or fish scraps from the kitchen or a little bread soaked in milk as a treat.
- Water – this is vital to the life of your chickens. A chook can die within a short amount of time if it doesn’t have water. If you’re free ranging your chooks, have a couple of water containers that they can see. If they gather in the afternoon for a rest under a shade tree, put some water there and another under a tree near where they scratch around. There should always be a container should be in their coop. All the water containers must be clean with fresh water every day. Scrub out the containers every week to make sure you have no contaminants in the water.
We feed our girls warm porridge when the weather is cold. They love it, and see it as a treat, but it also provides extra protein and will keep them warm during those cold days and nights of winter.
My local heirloom seed store, Green Harvest, recommend the following plants for chook forage: Asian greens, buckwheat, Ceylon spinach, cherry guava, clover, corn, cucumber, golden purslane, linseed, lucerne, millet, nasturtium, oats, passionfruit, New Zealand spinach, rocket, silverbeet, soybean, tamarillo and wheat. I have found my chooks also love kale, cabbage, all types of chard, capsicum (peppers), tomatoes, pigeon peas and radish tops.
The magnificent Lulubelle.
Remember that everything you give your hens will go into producing eggs that you and your family will eat. If you give them fresh, clean water and healthy food you will be rewarded with beautiful golden eggs. You will have healthy birds that will give you few problems. If you don’t intend to look after them like you would your dog or cat, don’t buy chickens as they deserve to be treated like loved pets and, unlike cats and dogs, for their ability to produce fresh food for you and your family.
Your chickens will need a high protein diet if they are to regularly lay eggs for you. You could feed them exclusively on laying pellets or mash which you can buy from the local produce store. A more natural alternative is to give them a mixture of whole grains, amaranth, kitchen scraps and a few handfuls of laying pellets or mash. Chickens will also eat grass and will get a large amount of their nutrition from it if left to free range all day. Grass eating chickens will have a higher level of Omega-3 in their eggs than chickens that don’t eat grass. You should remember that chickens are omnivores, which means they need to eat bugs, and animal protein (meat) as well as grains and grass. Chickens are creatures of habit so start out the way you will continue to feed them, as once they are used to one thing it’s sometimes difficult to make them change their food preference.
Chickens also need shell grit which you can get from the local produce store. It will help prevent calcium deficiency. You can supplement the grit with finely crushed egg shells. To do this, wash the egg shells and allow them to dry completely. Then finely crush the shells with a rolling pin or pulse a couple of times in the food processor. The aim here is to provide a variety of grit sizes for the chickens. They will choose which size they need. A small bag of shell grit lasts a long time so don’t buy a huge amount.
We let our chickens out of their house every morning about 9am, after they're laid their eggs, and they forage around the backyard eating bugs and grass. We give them most of our food scraps. They love meat and fish, old bread, eggs, crushed up egg shells (for extra calcium), most vegetables and fruit, rice, oats, wheat and most seeds and grains. To be honest, they are will eat almost anything.
CARING FOR YOUR LADIES
The number one consideration in keeping chickens in your backyard is to keep them safe from predators. Check out what predators live in your neighbourhood. If you’re in a suburban area it may be dogs, cats and hawks. If you’re in the country or on the edge of a township you may have foxes, wild dogs and cats, owls, hawks etc. Here at my home we have huge pythons, foxes, feral cats and dogs and dingoes. The hen house we constructed is not fancy – it’s made of recycled materials with a cement floor, but it’s strong and lockable and my girls feel safe in there. We have two large dogs, Airedale Terriers and although one of them rounds up the chickens they have never chased or hurt them. Chickens are sensitive to stress. They have been known to drop dead during thunderstorms or die a couple of days after being chased by dogs. We have wild thunderstorms here during summer and I’ve never lost any hens during one but I have had hens stop laying for weeks after they’ve been scared by visiting dogs or children.
If you have a dog and bring new chickens into the backyard, you'll have to watch your dog for a long time to make sure it accepts the chickens as part of the family. A dog's natural instinct is to see the chook as something to chase and eat. The dog should not be punished for a natural tendency, you need to train it to accept the newcomers. When we bring new chickens home for the first time, our two dogs watch them carefully for a couple of weeks. Hanno often sits with them and will encourage the chickens to come up to him for food and will have the dogs sitting with him. That teaches the chickens that the dogs are friendly and it shows the dogs that the chickens are ours and we look after them. If you have dogs and new chooks, never leave your dog alone with them until you're satisfied you can trust it. It is a good idea to keep the chickens behind a dog proof fence and only let them out together when you're there with them. The more time you can spend out there with the dog and the chickens, the faster they'll grow to accept each other.
Be aware that predators come from the sky too, they are not just lurking around corners. If you have dogs, hawks won’t be so much of a problem. Chickens have a natural tendency to sit under trees and bushes so they will be protected from sight much of the time if they free range in your backyard. After a while you’ll get used to their clucking and just like a baby you’ll learn by their various noises if something is wrong. If they are scared, they’ll let you know.
Always make sure you lock them in their hen house at night. That’s the time animals like foxes, cats and nocturnal predators will be creeping about. If they are safe and secure in their house, even if you have a silent fox in your backyard, they’ll be out of harm’s way.
Try to spend time with your chickens, especially when you first get them, so they accept you as part of their flock. You’ll need to be able to pick up your chickens and check them out occasionally and they will let you do this if you spend time with them and they know you are a friendly human.
Give them treats sometimes. I’ve made it my rule that whenever we take eggs from the nest the girls get a handful of seeds. They love seeds and grain, so a handful for the eggs makes them happy and makes the yolks in the eggs a rich yellow colour.
When you collect the eggs each day they should be clean and well formed. When your feathered ladies first start laying they may lay a few without yolks or a couple of double yolkers. The eggs will be small and light when they first start laying. When they settle into laying, the eggs will develop a good weight, the shells will be smooth and strong and the shell colour will be consistent.
Collected eggs should be stored in the refrigerator. If you provide a clean nest the eggs should also be clean when you collect them but sometimes they might be soiled or dirty. If you find an egg like this don’t wash it. Eggs have a protective membrane on the shell that protects the contents from becoming contaminated. Take the dirty egg inside and wipe it with dry kitchen paper. If you must wash it to remove the dirt, dry it with paper and use that egg next time you need an egg.
Chickens are one of the few creatures you can easily keep in your suburban backyard that produce food. So if you’ve been thinking about getting your first chooks, my advice is to jump into it. There is nothing better than fresh golden eggs from your backyard.